Sheila Paquette’s two-year quest to obtain justice in the alleged assault of her intellectually disabled brother came to a crushing end on July 30 as a jury in Falmouth District Court took less than half an hour to acquit the alleged assailant.
We have no desire to use the media to convict the man who was found innocent in this case. What we do want to point out here is how this case illustrates the nonstop frustration that intellectually disabled victims of crimes and their advocates are likley to encounter as they deal with a bureaucratic system that is supposedly intended to help them. In reality, it does nothing of the sort.
Here is a reprint of my op-ed on this case, which ran on Sunday in The Springfield Republican:
Viewpoint: State must protect its most vulnerable
By David Kassel
The jury did its job on July 30 in a trial of a care giver in a West Springfield group home who was alleged to have assaulted an intellectually disabled man more than two years ago in Falmouth on Cape Cod.
But did the government do its job? After less than half an hour of deliberation, the jury acquitted John Saunders of assaulting John Burns while they were on a weekend trip to the Cape from the group home operated by the Center for Human Development.
Burns suffered two black eyes and other injuries in the alleged assault.
Certainly, this was a difficult case to prove. The key witness was an intellectually disabled man who is Burns’ roommate in the West Springfield residence. When the case finally did come to trial on July 30, the witness’s account of the alleged assault had substantially changed.
What concerns us about this case is not the outcome, however, but rather the overall performance of the District Attorney’s office and other agencies entrusted with the protection of some of the most vulnerable members of our society.
Those agencies did not appear to demonstrate a strong commitment to working together in pursuit of justice for the alleged victim.
For instance, Sheila Paquette, of Westfield, Burns’ sister and guardian, ultimately ended up filing the assault charge against Saunders herself in July 2010 when she became convinced no law enforcement agencies were going to do so.
It was only after she filed the charge that the state Disabled Persons Protection Commission sent a state trooper to her house to investigate, she said.
After that, the case languished for months at a time, beset by bureaucratic snafus and witness no-shows that caused the trial to be postponed four times.
When the trial finally took place, the D.A.’s prosecution effort seemed half-hearted. Among other questions we have was why no one from the DPPC or its state police unit was called to testify at the trial.
The DPPC had issued a comprehensive report on the incident in February 2011, which found sufficient evidence to conclude that Burns was “seriously injured” by Saunders.
Assistant Cape & Islands District Attorney Kerry Whalen, who headed the criminal investigation of the case, contended to us that any testimony given by either the DPPC or state police investigators in the trial would have been considered hearsay because those investigators had not interviewed Saunders.
The DPPC report, however, stated that a DPPC investigator did interview Saunders by telephone. It is concerning to us that there appears to be no communication process in place to ensure that DPPC investigators testify in criminal proceedings such as this case.
Moreover, even if testimony from the DPPC would have been considered hearsay, that would raise a further question about the D.A.’s performance.
Why did none of the staff of Burns’ group home testify at the trial, other than Saunders and one other caretaker who had been on the Cape Cod trip?
The DPPC report stated that other staff in the West Springfield residence had observed Saunders to be “speaking in a derogatory manner” about Burns in his presence later on the day of the alleged assault. This never came out at the trial either.
If nothing else, this case has shown that there is a potentially serious lack of communication and cooperation between the key agencies that are charged with protecting the safety of some of our state’s most vulnerable citizens.
It also raises the question for us whether prosecutors take criminal cases involving abuse and neglect of disabled persons seriously enough.
We hope lawmakers and other policy makers will consider changes that are badly needed to ensure that the disabled in Massachusetts have adequate access to justice when crimes are committed against them.
(More information about the July 30 trial in this case and the questions it raises can be found in the August 2012 issue of The COFAR Voice newsletter and a special August edition of The Advocacy Network News, the newsletter of the Advocacy Network, a COFAR member organization.)